Landmines in abortion reporting

landmineThe Washington Post has a religion-heavy article on Nicaragua’s therapeutic abortion ban. Until a few weeks ago Nicaragua permitted abortions to be performed on women who had been raped, whose babies were abnormal or who faced medical risk, according to reporter N.C. Aizenman. Abortion opponents claimed that the loophole for therapeutic abortions was being abused.

Stories about abortion and the laws that govern it are very difficult to write. Unfortunately, mainstream media don’t have an excellent track record with handling the issue fairly. This could be because they are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion on demand. We’ve discussed this before, needless to say.

Our story today begins with a tragic anecdote about Jazmina Bojorge, a five-months-pregnant woman who died in a hospital there recently. Proponents of legal abortion say she died because the law forbade her from having an abortion to save her life. But the hospital director says that’s wrong on two points:

Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, countered that the new legislation, which took effect Nov. 19, hadn’t even been signed into law when Bojorge arrived for treatment. Her death, which remains under investigation by Nicaraguan medical authorities, “has nothing to do with the abortion law,” he said. “These charges are being made by people who are taking advantage of what happened.”

So the director of the hospital says the law wasn’t even in effect when she was admitted and that Bojorge’s death had nothing to do with the abortion law. So what does the caption that accompanies the story say? It says:

Rosa Rodriguez shows a photo of her daughter, Jazmina Bojorge, who died when denied a therapeutic abortion.

I mean, it’s one thing to use an anecdotal lede extremely sympathetic to one side of a contentious debate. It’s another thing to use an anecdote that fails to hold water. But to caption the piece with new information that is contradicted in the story takes it to a new level. Yes, some abortion advocates have diagnosed from a distance that the fetus should have been killed to save the life of the mother, but it’s not backed up by the medical staff treating her. The caption shouldn’t take sides, should it?

The rest of the piece discusses the influence of Roman Catholic and evangelical church leaders, including Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, in pushing for the ban on therapeutic abortion. Let’s look at how it characterizes the debate:

On Oct. 6, Obando, [Archbishop Leopoldo] Brenes and various evangelical pastors led tens of thousands of citizens in a march to the National Assembly to demand a repeal of the exception for therapeutic abortions. Legislators obliged, fast-tracking consideration of the ban under procedures normally reserved for national emergencies.

Every major medical society in Nicaragua opposed the proposed ban. Their concerns were echoed by Nicaragua’s health minister and a long list of foreign embassies and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program.

Gee, I wonder what foreign service staff writer N.C. Aizenman wants us to believe here about which side should have been listened to. I love that the foreign agents are unnamed and the addition of the scare phrase “normally reserved for national emergencies.” Just in case you didn’t get the point that the pro-lifers were bad people. The legal analysis isn’t substantiated by any source. You just have to trust the reporter.

nicaragprotestIt would be interesting to see how the reporter would handle the issue if the story were reversed. Let’s say the abortion opponents were the foreign influences and the abortion supporters were citizens.

Do you think the story would similarly situate the two sides, nudging the reader to support listening to foreign embassies and ignore the voice of the people?

The Post story fits the pattern for much abortion reportage, though. Mainstream media, as was reported in a Los Angeles Times study 16 years ago, tend to use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates, quote abortion rights advocates more favorably and often than abortion opponents, and ignore stories favorable to abortion opponents. One last paragraph to highlight:

Advocates for greater access to abortion argued that even that law was too restrictive, prompting an estimated 32,500 women to get illegal and potentially unsafe abortions in Nicaragua every year and accounting for 16 percent of the more than 100 maternal deaths here annually, according to a 2002 ministry study. By contrast, the Health Ministry recorded only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year.

A law banning abortion prompts people to have illegal abortions in the same manner a law banning rape prompts people to rape illegally. You may personally think either action is fine, and you may personally think either action should be legal and protected. But that’s not the point. Neither rape nor abortion is something an individual must do. Making either action illegal does not force the illegal action.

It’s also interesting that Aizenman says there were only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year. A BBC report last week — very heavy on the religious angles — says there were 30,000 therapeutic abortions last year. I wonder if something was lost in translation.

Aizenman should follow the lead of other reporters who’ve successfully tackled the difficult subject: Keep personal opinions out, pick anecdotes carefully, quote liberally and describe situations in the sparest way possible. Otherwise these abortion stories will continue to be landmines.

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Story behind the story in Istanbul

Constantinople5Press reports are starting to filter in on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey for the Feast of St. Andrew.

This is one of those cases in which there is a story that will be on the news and then there are other stories in the background, perhaps even buried or ignored in the mainstream coverage of the story. However, I have hopes that this will not be the case.

Why? Check out the opening of the initial report from Ian Fisher of The New York Times:

Pope Benedict XVI originally wanted to visit Turkey a year ago, for one quiet night, and Islam had nothing to do with it.

It was meant as a trip to help heal the 1,000-year rift with the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians. The pope would celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the worldwide Orthodox Church, who lives in Istanbul, then return to Rome.

But for various reasons having to do with its complex relationship with Orthodox Christianity, the Turkish government protested. No doubt the nation’s leaders wish they had approved a visit then. Now, after the pope’s speech two months ago that many interpreted as suggesting that Islam was prone to violence, the trip that starts Tuesday has become far more complicated.

An even earlier report in the Los Angeles Times managed to balance the same two topics. Here is a key paragraph:

The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for membership for Turkey in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a “Greek agent” seeking to reestablish Christian influence in this country.

The question, of course, is whether the tiny Christian minority in Turkey can be granted any kind of religious liberty without provoking violence among Islamists. Then again, how does Turkey hope to enter the EU if it cannot enforce the rule of law and basic human rights, such as religious liberty for minority groups?

So there is reason to hope for good journalism in a tough situation. Now we have to see if the 3,000 or so reporters making this trip into Turkey can meet the test.

Any event that even hints at Islamic relations and/or the European Union is going to grab the headlines. That’s a given. But it helps to remember that the original purpose of this trip was to push for religious liberty for minority groups in the allegedly secular state of Turkey. At the same time, this pope — as was the case with Pope John Paul II — is trying to test the edges of ecumenical relations with the other great ancient Christian communion, Eastern Orthodoxy.

Reporters who have been following that story for a decade or two will be paying close attention to any hints Big Ben may make about his concepts of limited forms of papal authority in the East or even a return to a first-among-equals relationship with the other patriarches in the ancient churches of the East. At the very least, he may try to better define the “impaired communion” that exists between East and West.

Here is a good summary paragraph about what is at stake from Catholic scholar George Weigel, writing in Newsweek:

There is … a link between what Benedict XVI thinks he’s doing during his Turkish pilgrimage and the world’s expectations of another episode in the confrontation between the West and Islam. That link involves the dramatic restrictions under which Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must operate, thanks to the obstacles put in the patriarchate’s path by the Turkish government — restrictions that raise serious questions about Turkey’s ability to meet EU human-rights standards. Should the papal visit to the Phanar (sometimes referred to as the “Orthodox Vatican,” much to the aggravation of the Orthodox) focus world attention on the gaps in Turkey’s practice of religious freedom, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be improved — and so, in consequence, would Turkey’s chances of a closer relationship to the EU.

Phanar2A key moment will occur when the pope passes the famous locked front gate of the Phanar (pictured), which — as I noted in 2004 — was

… (Welded) shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

What will Benedict XVI do at this door? Will he pray there? Leave flowers? Choose that site as a backdrop for his remarks on religious liberty? Stay tuned.

Anyone interested in the original purpose of this papal journey should read Weigel’s essay. Also, for those interested in the picky details, the Vatican has already posted some of the details on the ecumenical services.

UPDATE: I did not know, when I wrote this, that Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher had published a column in The Dallas Morning News today based on the same theme as this post. By all means, read it all. Here’s a key passage:

Benedict has a clearer eye about Islam than his predecessor, who rarely missed an opportunity to abase himself before Muslims for the sake of improved relations and received little for his efforts. This pope is different. He is not prepared to pretend that it is of no matter that in Europe Muslims are free to worship as they please and to build mosques at will, while in Turkey and the Muslim world, Christians are generally not permitted to build churches and face state-sanctioned discrimination. It is better, says Benedict, to speak frankly about the world as it is, rather than about the world Western elites wish we lived in.

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Stop asking about the guy’s underwear

mormon undergarmentsNothing annoys me more thatn when people want to talk about another person’s underwear. Particularly when there are more important things to talk about. For this reason, this post will remain brief.

Andrew Sullivan, who decided to make my time away from the computer Mitt Romney Week, raised the question of Mormon underwear because apparently he thinks it matters. (MSNBC, at around 4:40 p.m. Monday, apparently agreed and decided to bring it up.) It does not matter. Other things related to Romney’s Mormonism do.

What is somewhat interesting is that Sullivan requested and received a photo of these sacred Mormon undergarments. Since it came from Wikipedia, the photo is part of the public domain, but Sullivan received email from a Mormon reader who found the photo offensive:

Many of us consider posting photographs of Mormon undergarments to be sacrilegious and offensive. Yes, we wear these garments at all times, except during swimming, athletic[s], bathing, and other activities where it would be impractical. They are made from a variety of textiles, and are comfortable to sleep in, being really not far removed from long johns. Many religious groups, and not just ours, wear clothing as a symbol of religious adherence. Ours, we wear as a reminder of our commitments, but not in public view, because we are reminding ourselves, not making a spectacle. Hence, underclothing. Additionally, they are cut in such a way as to require us to adhere to church modesty standards.

The photo is posted here for us all to see. Now this underwear issue should be dropped. By the way, I wonder why Sullivan has never asked whether the next Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, wears Mormon undergarments? Or Sen. Orrin Hatch? Regardless, I think Sullivan understands that Romney’s underwear does not matter.

If a reporter had 10 questions to ask Romney, one should not be asking about what he is wearing underneath his suit. There’s just too much else out there to discuss. Leave the undergarment questions for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

How’s this for a Top 5 Mormon-related questions that I would ask Romney? Feel free to agree/disagree (explain why) and publish your own question list. We want to encourage thoughtful reporting on Romney’s religious beliefs (and yes, they do matter), not “does he wear boxers or briefs” reporting (which doesn’t matter).

  • Do you believe in the Mormon doctrine of “exaltation“?
  • What are your thoughts on the United States being “divinely founded,” and if so, how so?
  • Are you a “Cultural Mormon” or do you belief in all of the church’s theology?
  • What is the highest moral authority in your public life? In your private life?
  • Does your Mormonism have an influence on your public policy/foreign policy positions?
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Presiding bishop wronged by shallow newspaper

obispaThanks to the energy of GetReligion reader Greg Popcak, we now know that the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church does not share my enthusiasm for the contents of that strange little New York Times Magazine mini-interview with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

According to a letter from Robert B. Goodfellow, the new presiding bishop’s media aide, the brilliant primate, scientist and airplane pilot was quoted out of context by reporter Deborah Solomon and, if the remarks were read in context, all of those Roman Catholic and Mormon breeders out there in the blogosphere would not be as upset as they are at the moment (click here for background and URLs).

Here is the key part of that letter:

I am writing to thank you very much for the candid expression of your concern regarding the Presiding Bishop’s recent interview published in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

The reality is that media interviews do not always convey the whole nature of a conversation had between interviewee and interviewer. A few paragraphs of text cannot distill with complete accuracy a lengthy conversation.

I can also assure you that the Presiding Bishop does not think other Christians uneducated, ignorant, illiterate, or somehow or otherwise not smart simply because they are not Episcopalian.

Note the presence of the words “simply because” in that latter statement. Classic!

Now, I have — back in the days before I was a columnist — been involved in a few of these exchanges with the media aides of brilliant, nuanced, complicated mainline Protestant intellectuals.

Note that Goodfellow does not claim Jefferts Schori was misquoted. The controversial quote stands. In other words, the new leader of the Episcopal Church did, while discussing membership losses in her church, truly say:

Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children. … We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

Jefferts Schori’s office simply wants the world to know that she said many other things and that, as a reporter, Solomon did a poor job of selecting material from the longer interview when she was assembling this edgy little Q&A. I am told by people who spend more time than I do in The New York Times Magazine that this interview with the archbishop is a perfect example of Solomon’s style, which strives to humanize public figures by asking questions that are more personal and casual.

But here is my final observation. Many elite thinkers on the theological left have learned how to surround their beliefs in a kind of nuanced theological fog that serves as a protective barrier. Insiders know what the symbolic word clusters mean, but this strategy prevents many people in the pews — the kind of ordinary people who write checks — from understanding what is going on. There are exceptions, of course, such as the retired Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong of Newark, who never used a fly swatter when a baseball bat would do.

The problem for reporters is that when you select one crisp quote out of the fog this allows the offended intellectual to say, in effect, that the reporter simply wasn’t smart enough to understand the rich tapestry of the total interview and, thus, misquoted the speaker, even though the quote was accurate. It’s a sad thing, don’t you see, when leaders have to communicate high thoughts through such a low medium — like The New York Times.

Our sympathies go out to the poor reporter, who will surely learn from her error.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if Jefferts Schori continues — Spong style — to fire away as freely in interviews with news organizations that she trusts.

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In praise of valid news angles

megachurch 02Can you believe it was less than one month ago that we first discussed coverage of Ted Haggard’s fall from prominence? As November has progressed, we have seen quite a few stories related to the ordeal. The early days of the story focused on the hypocrisy angle, about which I highlighted an alternate view.

The schadenfreude/gloating stories thankfully were kept to a minimum and many outlets — Denver media in particular — have done an excellent job of finding valid news angles.

Old Man Mattingly highlighted an excellent piece that ran in the Rocky Mountain News last week on Gayle Haggard. Eric Gorski at The Denver Post began considering the story of New Life Church and Haggard’s future:

Even under normal circumstances, replacing the charismatic founder of a successful institution is a challenge. The circumstances behind Haggard’s fall are extraordinary, but the road ahead for New Life Church is not one it alone will travel.

Just as the country braces for societal changes with the aging of the baby-boom generation, the American success story that is the evangelical megachurch also sits at a crossroads, facing a future without the leaders responsible for its success.

Gorski takes New Life’s succession plan — or lack thereof — and puts it in a larger context. He looks at how other megachurches have replaced their charismatic leaders, with greater or lesser success. My favorite part was the sidebar with details on the process by which a new pastor will be found. Apparently New Life Church held its first membership meeting in its 21-year history on Monday night.

megachurch the gameThe Post also had an interesting story addressing Haggard’s path to recovery. Gorski spoke with Larry Magnuson, chief executive of SonScape Ministries, a retreat for pastors:

“We are not very good as a church with knowing how to do restoration,” Magnuson said. “We either want to sweep it under the rug and say it’s no big deal or we want to make it impossible.

“Evangelicals are great at doing. We are those who are working in the world. As evangelicals, we are not very good wrestling with the inner life, who we are and what’s going on in the inside.”

This theological statement could be explored much more. Veteran Courier-Journal religion reporter Pete Smith had two pieces on Kentucky megachurches on Sunday. One article dealt with the political activism of some churches. Consider the following from the second article on the increase in size and number of megachurches:

Some ministers credit part of the success of such churches to sermons that carry a practical message.

Natalie Anderson of Georgetown, Ind., said she attends Northside in part because it provides “a real-life message that you can apply.”

Juxtapose the last two excerpts against each other. Interesting, eh? Perhaps some enterprising reporter will explore the tension between practical messages and the tendency to avoid the inner life.

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In praise of quirky news interviews

DontBelieve I have been feeling kind of guilty because GetReligion hasn’t even mentioned the bizarre semi-story of the week that has been so hot out there in the blogosphere, especially on conservative Catholic sites.

I am referring to that strange little interview that New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon did with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In case you missed the wave of cybercoverage of this story, including in our own comments pages, here are the remarks that have been getting so much attention:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

As you can imagine, great fun was had in the usual places because of this statement. Anglican capitalists sprang into action, as did humorists. Lots of amused or angry people wrote letters to pboffice@episcopalchurch.org.

This would explain why the Episcopal Church has, in a generation or so, lost a million members and many that remain are getting a bit long in the tooth. Losses have been especially sharp in the past two or three years, as discussed in this story in the liberal mainline Protestant journal The Christian Century.

Catholic writers, in particular, were rather miffed that the Episcopal leader created such a stark equation that said, in effect: Our numbers are declining because we are smarter and care more about the environment than all of those populist Catholics and Mormons (recall that Jefferts Schori was bishop of the tiny Diocese of Nevada before her election as archbishop).

88284924v6 240x240 BackBut I didn’t quite know what to say about this Times mini-interview because, for starters, I thought the questions were interesting and so were the answers. It is also true that when people get richer, more urban and very highly educated they tend to have fewer children. And the heart of the Episcopal Church’s leadership comes from areas that are rich, urban and highly, highly educated. At the same time, the Episcopal Church’s parishes that are experiencing rapid growth tend to be in the Sunbelt, in growing suburban areas and popular with young, growing families.

So it was a good interview, with a few interesting questions that produced interesting responses, much like that Here & Now public radio interview that produced the new presiding bishop’s revealing comments about people finding salvation through the culturally appropriate religion of their choice.

Quirky questions. Quirky answers. That’s good, right? Like that question about her husband and their long-distance marriage?

You were previously bishop of Nevada, but your new position requires you to live in New York City. Do you and your husband like it here?

He is actually in Nevada. He is a retired mathematician. He will be here in New York when it makes sense.

The question for me is whether Jefferts Schori will continue to be this candid in interviews with news organizations that she respects and to which she wants to talk in order to reach her liberal base. Is it possible that she felt too comfortable talking to the Times and to a public-radio show? That she felt a bit too secure?

I, for one, hope that her candor continues. I have always enjoyed covering religious leaders — on the left and the right — who have strong convictions and are not afraid to share them near microphones and pens.

Image credits: Revolution 21, Midwest Conservative Journal.

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Round up the usual suspects!

CasablancaAirportSorry for the delay on this one folks. I have, for some time now, been meaning to post the link to some interesting comments from the noted Vatican watcher John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. In a way, it’s a meditation on the need for reporters — especially when covering Roman and American Catholicism — to dig past the easy layers of official sources and talk to real people on both sides of the church aisle.

There are some behind the scenes tidbits in here, the kind that have made Allen one of the world’s most famous Vatican storytellers (for better or for worse, depending on how you view his take on things Roman).

However, Allen also notes that the problems mainstream journalists have covering Catholicism must be linked to a larger topic.

… (There) is a deep cultural gap between Rome and the United States, which means that even when reporters get the facts right about something the Vatican has said or done, they often get the story wrong. … Further, most news organizations don’t take religion seriously as a news beat, so it’s covered part-time, often by people without any special training or background. (In Fort Worth, for example, I’m told that one local religion writer also has the rodeo beat). “News” is generally defined as something new or different (“man bites dog”), so for a 2,000 year-old tradition that prizes continuity, a broad swath of Catholic life will never count as “news” for most media outlets. Further, because conflict is the stuff of drama, news reports rarely focus on instances of harmony or quiet service, another way in which much Catholic life flies below the radar screen. Additionally, because “the church” is usually understood to mean the clerical caste, the vast range of works carried out by laity are at times all but invisible. (I was recently asked by the BBC to recommend someone from the church to interview on the subject of women in Catholicism. Since Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, happened to be in Rome that week, I passed along her name. The producer’s response was, “But we want someone from the church!”)

Yes, there is that whole thing about many mainstream journalists failing to get religion. We sort of agree with that.

However, there is something deeper going on as well. How do journalists pick their sources? Why do certain names keep showing up in major media over and over (think Pat Robertson or Father Richard McBrien)?

Well, the other day Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher sort of hit the wall on precisely this topic and pounded out this rather dark meditation on precisely this subject. You need to read the whole thing — but here is the heart of it. I would like to stress that Rod is describing bad journalism in this post and there are many reporters out there, including some we salute over and over at this blog, who prefer to do good journalism. It can be done.

So how do the journalistic usual suspects become the usual suspects who get rounded up in news report after news report? Take it away, Rod:

1. Outright bias. The reporter has an agenda, and calls the expert he knows will give him the quote he wants to spin the story a certain way. If, for example, you want to make Evangelicals come across in a certain way, you will call Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, even though their influence on the broad swath of Evangelicalism has long been waning.

2. Laziness, or expedience. No reporter can be expert in everything, and all reporters work under strict deadlines. Lots of times they’ll do a Google or a Nexis search to see which expert in which given field has been previously cited by reporters. “Norman Ornstein” turns up a lot. He’s an American Enterprise Institute scholar who knows a lot about Washington politics. Nothing wrong with his advice, but one reason he’s so widely quoted is … because he’s been so widely quoted.

3. Ignorance. This is closely related to No. 2. A reporter who means well, and who has the time to research a story, may be unaware of the nuances of a particular field, might not understand that the favored expert is not really expert. She’s going on past reputation as a guide to present expertise. The difference between this and No. 2 is that she really may be trying to do the best job she can, and not cut corners, but her ignorance of the subject area leads her to fall back on the usual suspects, thinking she’s gone to the leading expert.

4. Media-friendly sources. Nothing makes a source rise to the “must-call” list of a reporter faster than the source’s willingness to take the reporter’s call, or to call him back as soon as possible. Again, it’s a deadline thing. A lot of the experts you see quoted so often build up their reputation with the media by being helpful and accomodating. It’s hard to express to those not in the business how helpful that is to a reporter on deadline. (This is why it’s good to remember that if a reporter calls you for a quote, if you intend to speak to the reporter at all, call her back as soon as you can; she’s got a story to file, and if you don’t get back to her promptly, she’ll go to somebody else who will.)

Leaders of major religious organizations may want to clip that list and file it for fun reading on bad-press days. Remember, reporters cannot call you if they do not know you exist. And some reporters may not want to know you exist, because you might spoil the story they have already written inside their heads.

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Looking down the road

polygamyisutahsomeIn 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law against sodomy. “Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

Justice Atonin Scalia disagreed with the decision — and even more so with the reasoning behind it. The court wrote the ruling so broadly, he argued, that the current social order would be massively disrupted. Since the court didn’t “cabin the scope of its decision,” state laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity would also be attacked, Scalia predicted.

High-profile efforts to introduce same-sex marriage have been covered frequently. Jon Pomfret, writing for The Washington Post, looked at what progress has been made on the first of Scalia’s list: bigamy. He talks to various polygamists, including “Valerie,” about their efforts to legalize polygamy. Valerie, by the way, insists that she’s “just like you and me.” I love that meme. Anyway:

Valerie and others among the estimated 40,000 men, women and children in polygamous communities are part of a new movement to decriminalize bigamy. Consciously taking tactics from the gay-rights movement, polygamists have reframed their struggle, choosing in interviews to de-emphasize their religious beliefs and focus on their desire to live “in freedom,” according to Anne Wilde, director of community relations for Principle Voices, a pro-polygamy group based in Salt Lake.

In their quest to decriminalize bigamy, practitioners have had help from unlikely quarters. HBO’s series “Big Love,” about a Viagra-popping man with three wives, three sets of bills, three sets of chores and three sets of kids, marked a watershed because of its sympathetic portrayal of polygamists. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which voided laws criminalizing sodomy, also aided polygamy’s cause because it implied that the court disapproved of laws that reach into the bedroom.

The piece focuses on the positive, but does mention the child rape that happens in some polygamous communities. It also discusses the Mormon roots of the practice. Pomfret says that state authorities adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in recent years.

One reason was that the politically powerful Mormon Church, while officially opposing polygamy, did not want the bad press strict enforcement might bring. Another reason was that law enforcement was worried that isolated polygamist communities would erupt in violence if raided. An internal memo at the Arizona attorney general’s office in 2002 spoke of a “Waco-level problem” among the polygamous communities along the Utah state line.

For such huge claims, it would help to have some substantiation. If you’re going to say the Mormon Church was able to get law enforcement officers to stop enforcing the law in order to bolster the church, you need some support. Also, if you have that information, that would make a fantastic story. But no one from the LDS is quoted.

Other than that, the piece is fine. A colleague of mine described it as “surfacey,” noting that none of the polygamy sources mentioned on ReligionLink‘s polygamy page was quoted. What the piece does do is offer a starting point for discussion.

Whether or not polygamists are successful in using the Lawrence decision to help legalize bigamy, their efforts need to be covered. In general it would be helpful for reporters to look down the road at more marriage stories.

If fundamentalist Mormons succeed in overturning laws against bigamy based on the First Amendment instead of the Fourteenth Amendment as in Lawrence, what would be some of the unintended — or intended — consequences of such a decision?

If gay marriage is legalized, will that help formally sanction families such as the ones profiled in The New York Times last week — with multiple female and male partners? How might that affect family law, the tax code and inheritance laws?

If barriers to marriage are lowered, would there be an incentive for non-intimate couples or groupings to marry for benefits? If so, would that change how companies confer benefits? If companies cease offering benefits for partners, would that affect whether — for instance — one spouse is able to stay home and raise offspring?

Writing stories about how arcane our marriage laws are, as many reporters do, is fine. But it would be nice to see more in-depth reporting about the consequences of changes to marriage laws.

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